On tragedy, comedy, and the substance of life
with reference to Frasier and Ariadne auf Naxos
[Authors’ Note: We wrote these essays on tragedy and comedy largely independently, but we offer them to our readers together.]
Tara: I spent a lot of time last December watching Frasier. I had a mild but irritating case of Omicron – diagnosed right before the recommended ten days of quarantine condensed into five – isolating away from Dhananjay in a studio apartment so stiflingly small that my occasional trips to take down garbage began to feel like bucolic refuge, despite (or perhaps because of) the ubiquity of rats, which were, at least, living beings. I'd seen the show before, of course; I'd watched part of its early run as a child, and revisited the most famous episodes on bored YouTube interludes. But, consigned to solitude, I watched nearly all of the show's eleven seasons (1993-2004) in order.
Reader, it was Good. I don't just mean that it was funny, or that it was well-constructed, or that it was well-acted – although all these things are of course true. Rather, what struck me about Frasier, as a sitcom and more broadly as a piece of art, was the way it constantly, fervently, advocated for human goodness – and used comedy as a way to laugh, lovingly, about human frailty.
The plot of Frasier is simple. Pompous, self-satisfied aesthete slash radio psychiatrist Frasier Crane (originally a character in the long-running sitcom Cheers), discovers that his meticulously curated life is in peril when his blue-collar cop dad Marty (and his dad's mischievous Jack Russell, Eddie, and his dad's hideous puce-colored armchair) grudgingly moves in with him after a fall. Marty doesn't understand Frasier – or his younger son, Niles, Frasier's even more neurotic counterpart. Frasier doesn't understand Marty. Frasier and Niles understand each other all too well – they can't stop competing over the largely meaningless social shibboleths of Seattle high society (there are whole episodes devoted to their competing over being president of a wine club).
Add Marty's zany British physical therapist, Daphne, with whom Niles develops an instant infatuation, and Frasier's no-nonsense producer-slash-best-friend Roz, and you have an ensemble story: a story about family both bound and chosen. It's a story about loving the people in your life, about building a life, with the people in your life, a sense of community that is as much grounded in the characters' distinctly pre-cell-phone-era habit of dropping in on one another's houses, whenever they want to have a conversation, as it is about any of the explicit romantic relationships that develop during the show's run.
But what makes Frasier so great is that it could so easily – in other hands – not have been a comedy. Frasier, like many great sitcoms, operates as a gentler mirror of Greek tragedy with nearly every episode revolving around Frasier's central weakness: he doesn't know how to be happy because he constantly chases external validation, whether from the affections of unsuitably young, beautiful women, or from access to Seattle society's upper-crust, or from beating his kid brother in one of their dozens of petty rivalries. In one plot arc, Frasier can't pick between multiple beautiful women who are interested in him – constantly convinced the other is the one he's meant to be with – so he ends up two-timing them and losing them both. In another plot line, he tacitly pretends to be gay in order to profit from the social cachet of a renowned opera director with a crush on him.
The pleasure of watching Frasier is, in part, watching Frasier (and to a lesser extent, Niles) get his weekly comeuppance, as the elaborate schemes he creates to establish the fantasy life he thinks he wants inevitably come tumbling down. And there is a hypothetical version of Frasier – “Grimdark Frasier,” if you will – that could easily present him as a fundamentally tragic character: one whose flaws lead him to degradation and disaster, every time.
Yet Frasier — rare among sitcoms, and even rarer among “prestige” television as a whole — is never mean-spirited about its characters, nor does it glamorize their failings by aestheticizing them as transgressive antiheroism. (Frasier Crane is no Don Draper). Frasier's myopia is a comic flaw, not a tragic one. The distinction? There are people in his life who know him – nearly every one of Frasier's misguided schemes is met by Marty, Daphne, Roz, or Niles reminding him not to do that thing he does – and who love him, anyway. Frasier is human, he is a particularly irritating human, but he also has the astoundingly fortuitous capacity to love and be loved, and that love is a kind of grace.
It is not a deus ex machina, exactly, liberating Frasier from the consequences of his actions. Rather, it is a widening of the stage of action: what Frasier loses – potential girlfriends, career opportunities, bragging rights – he never needed anyway; what he gains: from the father he learns to better love and to better understand, from the brother he finally is able to see as more than just a threat to his ego, from the friends who call him on his bullshit and drink lattes with him at Café Nervosa and remind him to stop doing that thing he always does. Love doesn't so much reverse tragedy as render it ridiculous: treating the tragic flaw not as the glamorous engine of a tightly delineated narrative but rather as, well, something rather silly, an ordinary part of ordinary human life, yet one that distracts from the real story of who we are, or at least who we are meant to be: people that love one another well.
Frasier refuses to aestheticize human frailty. Instead, it suggests that our best response to it is laughter: not the cutting laughter of cringe comedy, but rather a delighted recognition of just how silly we all are, when we are trying to be anything more or less than part of a family.
It invites not a cynical gaze, or even a righteously indignant one, but rather a loving one: we are invited to love these characters – flaws and all – the way we love one another. We may chuckle at Frasier getting himself into his customary scrapes, but we are never encouraged to see Frasier as anything less than a full human being, one whose foibles are worthy of laughter not because he is a particularly egregiously bad person — unlike, say, the characters of Arrested Development, a far more mean-spirited show about a dysfunctional family — but because we all, as human beings, are worthy of laughter. Laughing at Frasier becomes a way of laughing at ourselves.
Although the story of Frasier is ultimately the story about how Frasier Crane becomes, after eleven years, through his relationships with Marty and Niles and Daphne and Roz, a slightly better person (the finale suggests that Frasier is at last ready to change), this ultimate vision of goodness is present in every single episode. Life is not a tragedy. Frasier invites us to affirm it is a comedy.
In many ways Frasier, like the best comedies, invites us not only to laugh at particular jokes, but to imagine what life as a comedy might mean. The “tragic life” — as a genre — is one of mythic power and abject failure, of gods and heroes, of people who are great, in the dramatic sense. At its best — Antigone, say — it is about the passionate rebellion of the human will in the face of a world that cares little for actual humanity.
In comedy, there are not just happy endings but glorious reversals: visions of a world rich enough, and complex enough, and mysterious enough, to overcome what seems like the inexorability of our flaws and our fates. Frasier’s story of perpetual failure might be a tragic one, were it not for the fact that the actual life that sustains him — he comes to learn — is full of richness, of fullness, of grace. In widening its scope, comedy renders rightfully petty the struggles of will-to-power, of love-as-vanity. Every Macbeth, it suggests, is really a Malvolio. As long as you know how to look.
Dhananjay: Last summer I wrote about pessimism and hope in the face of climate disaster. I talked there about hope as a virtue, drawing on Aquinas. But it is worth thinking about hope’s exercise on particular occasions. What would it take for an individual act of hope to be reasonable? Does the reasonableness of hope depend on the outcome of what is hoped for? If so, can we judge hope to be reasonable here and now – or must we withhold judgment until the outcome is clear?
We can compare hope to two other states or experiences for illumination: grief and fear.
Grief is reasonable if the loss is real and irreparable. Are these also the only conditions? If so, it is reasonable to grieve forever, since the loss cannot change. We tend, however, to think of grief as appropriately limited. A major loss may cast a shadow over a long period of our lives. Perhaps there can be no full escape from it. Yet it makes sense to think of grief and its penumbra as distinct.
At any rate, the temporality of grief – and likewise, our assessment of when grief is reasonable – is complex. As far as the experience itself is concerned, the loss is felt as present, even though to feel it as grief, we must judge the losing to have happened firmly in the past, a judgment which also envisions a future in which nothing more can be done to repair the loss. Grief is pain that binds a life together.
Fear, by contrast, is more straightforward. Our feeling of anticipation of some bad thing - and our desire to avoid it - is present to us, though the source of our fear may be imminent or in a remote future. It is reasonable to be afraid if the bad thing is genuinely bad and is likely to eventuate.
Hope, I submit, is more like grief than like fear. Like grief, hope can bind a life together (in joy, not in pain). It is not merely directed at a future good, whether likely or not. It also concerns how we view our past and present, how these may be ordered to some end we cannot fully grasp. In hoping, we judge ‘all of this is worthwhile’.
There are unreasonable hopes, of course - ones that make the value of our present doings depend too much on an uncertain or unlikely outcome. But hope is not assessed predictively in the way that fear is. Generally speaking, it is unreasonable to fear dying in a plane crash. But it is not unreasonable for a child to hope to be an astronaut, even if (let us say) the odds are similar.
Hope, insofar as it is practical, has an important narrative dimension, then, just as grief does. As a result, the nature of hope bears on a question I have become entangled in: should we think of human life - that is to say, our lives - as tragedy, comedy, both, or neither?
The question first arose for me when I began to study Greek literature in college, because the ancient dramas from which we get the very notion of tragedy seemed to contain a truthful picture of human life, despite the enormous distance in time and cultural context that divides us from their original performance. If tragedy tells the truth about us as human beings, then is this not, as the philosopher Bernard Williams suggested, a pessimistic emetic for the ‘good news’ we otherwise prefer to imbibe?
The tradition of absorbing the insights of tragic drama into a pessimistic philosophy, of which Schopenhauer and Nietzsche are the exemplars, is a serious one, but it is also strangely anti-humanistic. The Greek tragedies, by contrast, are seriously concerned with the human being as a creature worthy of interest, and it is this fascination - not any particular evaluative stance - that marks them out as humanistic.
Moreover, it is hardly clear that the tragedies themselves are pessimistic. Some of them, for instance, have happy endings, though this point is too-seldom remarked on even in scholarship. The confusion was there already in antiquity, with Aristotle assigning happy endings to comedy and killing and suffering to tragedy in the Poetics (though Aristotle also says that the realm of human things is one where we can make generalizations only ‘for the most part’). Yet the surviving plays push back on such generalities. Our only extant trilogy of plays, Aeschylus’ Oresteia, ends (after much suffering) in reconciliation and peace.
An intriguing case study is offered by Euripides’ Iphigenia at Aulis, which relates the events that spark the Oresteia and its cycle of revenge killings, with Agamemnon resolving to sacrifice his daughter for a favorable wind so that the Greek army may sail to Troy. As the received text stands, after Iphigenia has dazzled the soldiers of Agamemnon’s army with her fortitude, she is whisked away magically. Scholars have argued convincingly on textual grounds that the ending is an interpolation - someone has written a happy ending for Euripides, perhaps to harmonize the play with the other Iphigenia play (Among the Taurians), which starts with the premise that Iphigenia escapes.
But other ancient evidence suggests that Euripides’ original ending called for Artemis to console Iphigenia’s mother Clytemnestra at the end with just such a plan to engineer an escape. So perhaps the interpolator has simply filled in the details. The happy ending, even if it is inauthentic, could well be faithful.
Yet the stuff of tragedy remains. The breach between Agamemnon and Clytemnestra turns on his willingness - and in Aeschylus’ telling, his apparent eagerness - to kill their daughter, after all.
If the world-view of tragedy is not unremitting pessimism, then, what is it? Tragedy does demand that our attention linger on truths we would rather ignore, especially about our finitude and our vulnerability and the possibility of disappointment and betrayal in relying on other finite and vulnerable beings. This truth-telling is consistent with hope, indeed, sharpens hope, keeping it from being Pollyannaish. And it does not foreclose happy endings, just as suffering and failure can also belong to comedy (as Tara argues above).
My mind turned to these connections between the genres when we recently went to see Richard Strauss’ Ariadne auf Naxos at the Met Opera, in the late Elijah Moshinsky’s vibrant production. Strauss’ work embeds the last part of the myth of Ariadne - who is abandoned by Theseus on the island of Naxos after his triumph over the Minotaur, but is unknowingly destined for marriage to Dionysus - as an opera-within-an-opera. The long prologue purports to show us the decline of artistic consumption, with the charming buffoonery of a commedia dell’arte troupe displacing the young Composer’s serious dramatic work, the original form of the very Ariadne we later witness, from the attention of the gathered audience at the house of the richest man in Vienna, the patron of both sets of players.
A compromise is engineered by the patron’s steward: both entertainments will go forward at once as the guests dine. Of course, to reduce the opera to entertainment is to miss its purpose, as the Composer vociferously argues. But the second half of Strauss’ work shows us that the Composer is wrong to think that his actors could not possibly share a stage with the comic players. Zerbinetta, the centerpiece of the comic troupe, turns out to be the one who sees through Ariadne’s grief and recognizes the fittingness of her marriage to Bacchus. The happy ending of the Ariadne story, which hardly shies away from suffering and loss, is transfigured, just as Zerbinetta, as the representative of comedy, herself is, becoming more herself in the opera seria setting.
If we focus narrowly on the Prologue, it may seem that all Strauss and his librettist and collaborator Hugo von Hofmannsthal were trying to say was that it is hard to get people to take art seriously when they are looking instead for mere pleasure. But what the opera as a whole made me see was the way that tragedy and comedy both aspire to truth-telling. The humble and comic truth that Zerbinetta tries to tell Ariadne - that grief need not make us insensitive to the good that remains in the world and in our lives - is just as serious as the attention to our fragility and our folly that tragedy tends to insist upon.